Weekend sweep for men’s tennis sets up showdown against Ohio State

It may not have been the prettiest showing for the No. 12 team in the country, but the Illinois men’s tennis team found a way to close its five-game road trip this weekend with a perfect Big Ten record still intact.

Dates with Iowa and Minnesota featured a series of closely fought battles as Illinois (16-5, 6-0 Big Ten) followed up a 5-2 drubbing of the Hawkeyes on Friday with a squeaker against the Golden Gophers, 4-3, on Sunday.

“We didn’t do anything extraordinary, we didn’t do anything dominating, but we persevered,” head coach Brad Dancer said. “We won road matches in the Big Ten, which used to be not that difficult, and I think it’s becoming more difficult because the conference has improved so much.”

Minnesota (15-5, 4-2) spread the upset bug throughout the Illini lineup, setting the stage for a pair of clinching performances by sophomore Waylon Chin. The No. 49-ranked pairing of Marek Czerwinski and Marc Spicijaric dropped the first contest in doubles play, forcing Chin and partner Brian Livingston to salvage the match’s doubles point on court No. 3 with an 8-6 win.

“We came out ready to play in doubles. Marek and I, we lost, but we were doing some good things, the other team just played too well today,” Spicijaric said. “(Courts) two and three stepped up for us and got us the doubles point. Singles was an absolute battle. Luckily I was able to come out with a straight-set win.

“But everyone was in a dogfight.”

Freshman Dennis Nevolo, ranked No. 39 nationally in singles, was the next to fall victim after surrendering a 4-1 second-set lead to Minnesota’s Tobias Wernet in a 6-3, 7-5 loss.

By the time Chin forced a third set on court No. 4, Illini wins on two of the top three courts had placed the balance of the match squarely in the sophomore’s hands.

Chin stepped up by clinching the victory with a 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 triumph, keeping the Illini deadlocked atop the Big Ten standings with No. 5 Ohio State heading into next weekend’s showdown at Atkins Tennis Center.

“We had long discussions throughout the weekend where we talked about, as a team, having a similar goal and bringing a lot of energy, bringing a lot of passion and pride when we play,” Chin said. “I think playing a lot more passionate has been helping us.”

Friday’s visit to Iowa (11-5, 3-3) produced a different challenge for the Illini, who coughed up the doubles point before wins on all but one singles court remedied the early deficit.

Heading into the weekend, Illinois had suffered four of its five losses on the season after dropping the doubles point, with their last comeback run coming against Purdue in the Big Ten opener on Feb. 27.

With the Buckeyes and No. 13 Kentucky on tap and a conference match against Penn State sandwiched in between, the Illini are well aware of the gravity this week’s contests will carry.

“When you win, the fun thing about that is that it creates more drama or more suspense, it increases the importance of each next match,” Dancer said. “I think that’s the fun thing about playing tennis for Illinois — as you win, you escalate the importance of matches, and that’s how it is for us as we move forward this week.”